Posts Tagged ‘John Slattery’

On the face of it, I’ve set myself a fool’s errand here : to review Avengers : Endgame on its own merits, completely divorced from its cultural context and all which came before it, may not even be possible. But once we get a few particulars out of the way, that’s precisely what I intend to do, those particulars being : This. Is. The. Biggest. Thing. Ever.

We’re talking the cinematic equivalent of your wedding day or the birth of your first kid — or so the Disney/Marvel marketing machine would have you believe, not that they’re necessarily wrong, depending on your own circumstances. The so-called “MCU” came into being when I was in my 30s, but I can only imagine what this must mean to people who literally grew up on this stuff. Ten years of big-budget spectacle after big-budget spectacle, all leading up to this — the spectacle.

And, on that level, not to give too much away too quickly, directors Joe and Anthony Russo deliver. This movie is as big a production as anything Cecil B. DeMille could have dreamed of, plus a whole lot more. The scale is simply staggering. It starts — and ends — in surprisingly quiet, dare I say intimate, fashion, but in between it really is everything and the kitchen sink.That can be good, that can be bad, that can be some of each — and, on balance, the brothers manage to make the most of what amounts to a raft of corporate and circumstantial mandates. There’s no need to donwnplay the scope of their achievement, no matter how badly I despise the media conglomerate behind it all. They had a job to do, and they did it exceedingly well.

Long-time readers here will no doubt be surprised to read those words, given my long-standing antipathy toward most of the Marvel flicks, but once they started coming up with villains that posed a worthy challenge for their heroes — a process that took the better part of nine years — it seems as if a corner was turned. The stamp of auteurship afforded Ryan Coogler with Black Panther is nowhere to be found here, it’s true, but this also isn’t the by-the-numbers extended television episode that so many other MCU flicks have been. It’s probably fair to say it inhabits a middle ground — a “house style” production that nevertheless uses the strictures imposed upon it to its advantage. That takes some doing.

But, again, its own merits only is the rule of the day here. I do, however, need to preface that by saying I was not very enamored of this film’s predecessor, Avengers : Infinity War. After the aforementioned Black Panther I felt it was a massive step back, a reversion to the norm, a dour reinforcement of the status quo. So I was not expecting to like its “back half” very much at all.

Cue some genuine surprises : a central role for Karen Gillan’s perpetually under-utilized Nebula. Several unexpected “ultimate fates” for Josh Brolin’s cosmic baddie, Thanos. A turn toward the nearly likable for Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton taking on the “conscience of the team” role usually occupied by Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers. A time-travel plotline that re-visits a number of key events in “MCU” history without once feeling like a nostalgic “greatest hits” reel or, even worse, a victory lap. And a sense of consequence hanging over every scene that nevertheless avoids becoming a Sword of fucking Damocles.

I’m gonna take a minute, at this point, to single out screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely for a praise — they had a lot to stuff into this particular stocking, both in terms of the “B” they had to get to from “A,” but also in regards to figuring out how to give a hell of a lot pf people something to do. Samuel L. Jackson, Marisa Tomei, William Hurt, Angela Basset, Robert Redford, Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, Vin Diesel, Dave Bautista, Benedict Wong, Pom Klementieff, Letitia Wright, Sebastian Stan, and Natalie Portman all draw a shorter end of the stick than the rest of the cast, but damn — in addition to the already-name-dropped Evans, Downey, Brolin, Gillan, and Renner, Paul Rudd, Benedict Cumberbatch, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Evangeline Lilly, Chris Hemsworth, John Slattery, Anthony Mackie, Tessa Thompson, Brie Larson, Rene Russo, Chris Pratt, Gwyneth Paltrow, Danai Gurira, Tom Holland, Elizabeth Olsen, Chadwick Boseman, Jon Favreau, Don Cheadle, Tilda Swinton, Hayley Atwell, Zoe Saldana, and Bradley Cooper all have important shit to do in this story. That’s pretty remarkable any way you slice it, and the logistics of the whole thing — well, I can scarcely being to imagine. Our intrepid authorial duo must have been keeping Excedrin in business for a good while there.

As for the stuff everyone really wants to know about, well, I’m going to keep things “spoiler-free” given the movie literally just opened at the time of this writing, but any long-time comics reader can tell you — death is never permanent, especially death on as large a scale was we were left with in the last flick. And it’s not even the folks who did die that necessarily have the most to worry about — it’s the ones who didn’t, because they’re the ones who’ll be called upon to pay whatever price is required to bring everyone else back. Which means that, yes, certain “character arcs” do come to an end here — and these are all pitch-perfect, whether tragic in nature or (here’s a glimmer of hope for those who haven’t seen it yet and may be rooting for a favorite or two) otherwise. Every hero gets a hero’s ending at the end of their hero’s journey and — forget it, that’s enough of the word “hero” in one sentence.

Production design, cinematography, costumes, locations — all are scaled to fit here, which is to say big, but the surprising amount of personality that finds its way through to the surface is what I think is this film’s most noteworthy feature. Against all odds, you’ll find yourself invested in these proceedings, even if you’re as far away from being a Marvel fan as yours truly. I didn’t go into the theater actively looking to find things to pick on when the lights dimmed and the screen lit up, but I didn’t think they’d be too hard to find. To my more than pleasant surprise, apart from a handful of stupid plot holes, nothing to add to the negative side of the ledger leaped out. Believe me when I say — I’m still trying to figure out how the hell that happened.

As to whether or not this is the “end” of something, as its title suggests — I’ve gotta say that, on the whole, it doesn’t feel like it is. More like the culmination of a whole lot of “somethings,” in preparation for the next act. The Marvel blockbuster machine shows no signs of slowing down — and for the first time probably ever I actually find myself interested to see what it has in store for us next.

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Occasionally, a critic — even one of the strictly amateur variety such as myself — is compelled to offer an opinion that makes them feel like a bit of an asshole. Maybe there’s a flick you didn’t care too much for, but you’ve gotten to know one or more of the principles involved in its production either via social media or, in rare instances, the real, actual world, and they seem like genuinely nice folks who you’d hate to piss off. This has happened to me more than once and I take no particular joy and/or pride in it, trust me. Or maybe there’s a new film out from a director whose work you genuinely admire but his or her latest project just isn’t up to snuff. This is much more common, and you can generally let it roll like water off your back. Or perhaps there’s a movie making the rounds that’s so well-regarded among everyone else that your own negative review on it will mark you as something of a pariah among the rest of the “critical class.” This, frankly, shouldn’t bug you in the least.

These scenarios can all be dealt with to one degree or another and needn’t leave a stain on your conscience for very long, but damn — once in the deepest, bluest of moons, you don’t just offer an opinion that makes you feel like “a bit of an asshole,” but like a major asshole. Today, I’m sorry to say, is just such a day.

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Director Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight was the surprise winner of the “Best Picture” award for 2015 at the most recent Oscars ceremony, and is certainly an important, topical, and highly accurate procedural story that’s well worth seeing — even though I didn’t see it myself until well after it took home the biggest prize the Academy can bestow on a film (I saw it this afternoon, to be specific, at the neighborhood discount theater). So it’s not that I didn’t like the flick — please don’t get me wrong. But I’m kinda glad that I waited to see it “on the cheap,” and to be honest, I probably could have kept waiting until it hit DVD or even Netflix. That’s because my first thought upon leaving the theater was — well, why don’t we just save that for the end, since it’s what made me feel like a, as I described it, “major asshole.” Which plenty of folks will say I am anyway, but still —

The “pluses” on offer here are many, of course, but most fall squarely on the shoulders of the cast. Michael Keaton plays Boston Globe editor Walter “Robby” Robinson, who’s been tasked by his new boss, Marty Baron (portrayed by Liev Schreiber) with digging into the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal with a bit more vigor than the paper has in the past. Grinding the shoe leather in a concerted effort to break the story wide open are the ace reporters of his “Spotlight” unit (hence the title and all) Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), who are all given various opportunities to shine throughout the course of the film and duly make the most of them, particularly Ruffalo. Overseeing matters is John Slattery as legendary newsman Ben Bradlee, Jr., and a trio of lawyers played by Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup, and Jamey Sheridan each impact the case, for good or ill, from their respective positions. It’s a superb group of actors that’s been assembled here, and McCarthy is to be credited for getting terrific work out of each and every one of them.

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What I’m not prepared to give him credit for, though, is having any discernible directorial style to speak of (even the tired and overused faux- “guerrilla filmmaking” or “street level” tropes would have been preferable to the dull, “point-and-shoot” approach that he takes throughout here), nor for mining any of the quite obviously rich human tragedy that underpins this frankly ground-shaking series of events for dramatic effect. We only see a couple of victims for a very short time, only meet one of the accused priests (who’s both disturbingly confessional and even more disturbingly obtuse) for about two minutes tops, and the rest of the flick is just pure nuts-and-bolts newspaper work that McCarthy and co-screenwriter Josh Singer  are serving up. It does an okay job with that material, sure, but it’s not going to make you forget All The President’s Men or anything — what’s really remarkable, though (and I don’t mean that in a complimentary sense) is how it’s pretty darn hard to feel a genuine sense of emotional detachment from a film about one of the most wealthy and powerful organizations in the world covering up for a bunch of friggin’ child molesters within its own ranks, yet somehow Spotlight manages to pull it off. I’d be tempted to call it a perverse sort of miracle, even, but the Catholic church might be tempted to take credit for it, so I won’t. Towards the end they attempt to imbue each of the reporters and editors with a bit of a personal connection to the story they’ve spent, by then, literally months working on, but it’s a case of “too little, too late,” and it both feels forced and falls flat.

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And so we’ve arrived at the “why I feel like an asshole” moment that I started talking about roughly 800 words back. And it all comes down to that thought in my head as I left the theater. I’ll give you the exact words that ran through my mind in a moment, but the reason I hated myself for even thinking them is because the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal is an absolutely devastating story whose size and scope is almost beyond comprehension at this point. It’s a genuine worldwide epidemic that has destroyed countless lives when its victims turned to drugs, alcohol, or even suicide to either mask or end their suffering. It’s been going on for God only knows how long, it continues to go on to this day, and even after paying out who knows how many millions (not nearly enough, if you ask me) of dollars in settlements, the same church leaders who spent the better part of their lives and careers sweeping it under the rug still don’t seem to grasp why it’s such a big deal. I might be a major asshole, but these guys are unconscionably major assholes.

So, yeah — this is a story that needed to be told. And I’m glad it was. And no one should ever forget it. The victims deserve not just financial settlements or some vague and amorphous sense of “closure,” but outright fucking justice, and the perpetrators and their enablers deserve to be dealt with not just by their fictitious God, but by real, human courts of law and penal systems. The work that the Boston Globe did to report on this epic tragedy in important. The work that Tom McCarthy and his cast and crew did it translating that story into film is important. But — and it’s a big but — that nagging thought I had as the credits rolled on Spotlight, and that I’ve had ever since, is (insert sarcastic drumroll if you must) : “this felt like a made-for-TV ‘Movie of the Week’ with an overqualified cast.”

I wisely ditched out on the Catholic church (and all religion) in my mind and heart when I was about six years old and physically as soon as I flew my parents’ coop, but some remnant of good, old-fashioned “Catholic Guilt” must still be lingering in the dark corners of my subconscious because I feel like I should burn in a Hell that I don’t even believe exists just for thinking that. But my conscience would bother me even more if I expressed anything other than my absolute, honest assessment of this — or, heck, any — film to my readers, so there you have it.